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Can This Grassroots Movement Change the Way Teachers Think About Race?

A petition from the group EduColor is asking that cultural competency become a part of teacher training in New York City.
Sep 19, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

A new coalition of educators, parents, and students hopes to catalyze greater racial and cultural understanding in Gotham’s schools. At least, that’s one of the goals of a petition from EduColor, a grassroots organization attempting to ramp up discussion and spark action on the issue of race in education reform.

The petition is a response to a group of New York City teachers, mostly from Staten Island, who decided to kick off the school year wearing T-shirts proclaiming their support of the NYPD. EduColor is also asking for the teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, and the NYC Department of Education to “reaffirm cultural competency as a core value of the teaching profession.”

In July 43-year-old African American Staten Island resident Eric Garner died from a choke hold by a New York City police officer. Video footage of the incident went viral, and Garner’s death, which was ruled a homicide by the city coroner, ignited national outrage and massive protests across the Big Apple against police brutality toward people of color.

The United Federation of Teachers had endorsed a march in Garner’s honor and had warned the city’s educators to “avoid distracting clothes and openly political statements when in school.” However, more than 500 shirts reading “New York’s Brightest Supports New York’s Finest, #ThankYouNYPD” were ordered, and teachers wore them on the first day anyway.

“My immediate reaction was one of sincere disappointment,” says EduColor founder José Vilson about the T-shirt fiasco. Vilson, a New York City math teacher and the author of the book This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, founded EduColor in 2013.

“As someone of color, [the T-shirt incident] made me think that, with all the stuff that’s happened with police officers in the last few months, we need to start reconsidering the relationship between our schools and law enforcement, which lines right up with the school-to-prison pipeline,” he says.

Since Garner’s death, several high-profile officer-involved killings of unarmed black men have rocked America. In the month of August, at least three men—Ezell Ford, John Crawford, and Michael Brown—were slain by police in Los Angeles; Beavercreek, Ohio; and Ferguson, Mo. respectively. Each incident added to the frustrations of people of color and their allies, who are fed up with mistreatment by police.

The nearly all-white group of shirt-wearing teachers claimed they just wanted to support the police. Supporters such as Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, fired back at UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s call for educators to not wear the attire.

“Mike Mulgrew needs to consider the opinions of the vast majority of his members before misusing their dues money to support antipolice issues,” Lynch said. “Besides, what could be inappropriate about showing support for the police department that protects teachers and students alike?”

But given how communities of color in New York City have been disproportionately affected by police harassment and brutality, the teachers’ decision to wear pro-NYPD shirts seemed naive at best and problematic at worst.

Nearly 60 percent of public school students in NYC are kids of color, while the majority of teachers in the city’s schools are overwhelmingly white. Although the teachers who wore the shirts may not have been looking to make a statement about race or police brutality, it might be hard for students to ignore a visual reminder of officers who have profiled and harassed them and their family members.

“When mostly white teachers all around New York City wore NYPD T-shirts in opposition to their union’s participation in a community rally against police brutality, and in defiance of their union’s cautioning, they rubbed salt in the wounds of the families and communities they serve,” the EduColor petition reads. “Their actions undermined the vital trust each teacher must build with each and every student in order to be effective, and their insensitivity shocked the nation.”

The petition also notes that “if teachers wear T-shirts with messages such as 'God hates f---s' or 'B----s suck,’ under New York’s education law The Dignity Act they would also face consequences for provocation and creation of a hostile learning environment for their students and their families.”

A NYPD-friendly T-shirt might not seem as extreme as those kinds of slurs and insults. But Vilson says that at the start of the school year, when a teacher needs to connect with his or her students, sending the message that “we are very much [in favor] of you being patrolled and punished” is the worst thing to do.

“Even if that wasn’t necessarily what the teachers thought, that is the message that was being sent by wearing an NYPD T-shirt,” he says.

Instead of vilifying the teachers, the EduColor petition recommends that the city’s education community use this episode as a teachable moment.

The petition asks for the city’s Department of Education to “urge NYPD T-shirt wearing teachers to participate in anti-oppression training, and open this opportunity for training to all teachers who desire it.” It also asks the shirt-wearing teachers to “enter into dialogue with community groups to understand the work of youth activists fighting to end ‘stop-and-frisk.’ ”

Ending stop-and-frisk is one of the issues the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, campaigned on. The policy has been found to be unconstitutional and ineffective, and in January de Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton agreed to have a court-appointed monitor oversee the police department’s phasing out of the practice over the next three years.

To prevent culturally insensitive incidents like this from happening again, the petition calls on the UFT to work with the Department of Education and New York City Chancellor of Public Schools Carmen Fariña to ensure that all NYC teachers and school staff go through the Dignity for All Students employee training program. There has yet to be an official response from any of those entities.

According to Vilson, training educators is only the first step on a long road to change. Another? Having honest conversations about race.

“There are just too many resources out there about having race-centric conversations,” says Vilson. “We need to try and see how we can become better at building communities.”